Critical Analysis of Urban Ethnography
(c) Sharon Cornet 2007



I.                 Bibliographic reference information:

Hostetler, John A. 1997. Hutterite Society. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.


II.               Abstract:    

Hutterite society, similar to Amish and Mennonite society, has its roots in the Anabaptist movement between 400-500 years ago.  Communal living, in what is called Bruderhof colonies, and a strict spiritual/religious reliance on Biblical Scripture is what unifies the Hutterites to each other.  Their social networks typically remain within the colony, although they do communicate with other nearby colonies and also with a few links in the public sector, since they are primarily agricultural communities and sell their products in order to provide for the needs of the colony.   Hutterites, unlike other Anabaptists, accept technological advances as tools as long as it enhances the lifestyle of the colony as a whole, and not individuals.  The concept of individualism is absorbed into the group identity. 

The Hutterite hierarchy is gender and age based, although there are a few status-related positions within each colony.  Men rule over women, and women are seen as inferior, and in need of protection as the weaker vessel.  Babies and children, and their respective nuclear families, stay close throughout their lives, although once the children reach about 3 years old they begin the process of integration into the colony, which consists of strict rules, learning hard work and one’s place within the colony, and correction and guidance from the colony as a whole, rather than from just their parents.  Birth rates are high and mortality rates are low since Hutterites practice cleanliness, and accept modern medical care.  The success of the Hutterite society as a communal system has succeeded mostly because of their ability to adapt to the modern world without losing their deep-seated faith and social structure.   They keep their colonies small, branching off if their size becomes unmanageable.  Divorce is almost entirely unheard of, crime is almost nonexistent, and there has not been a single homicide in over 400 years.


III.             Outline:


CH. 1: The Hutterites, who branched off of the Anabaptist movement in the 16th century, denied the Protestant and Catholic beliefs of infant baptism and state-run religion; consequently, they were persecuted and often killed for their strict obedience to their Christ-discipleship beliefs.  The Hutterites adopted many of the teachings of Menno Simons, who was the founder of the Mennonite faith, which later the Amish branched off from.  These New-Testament pacifists, who were considered left wing radicals and rebels were frowned upon by traditional religious groups because they stood strong for the separation of the church from the state, and practiced Christian communism.   The mostly German-speaking present-day Anabaptist groups derived from the following areas: Mennonites came from the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland, and distinct from them in practice/historically, the Hutterites came from the areas of Switzerland, Austria, and south Germany.

CH. 2: The “good” period of Hutterite culture growth was in 1554-65, and the “golden” period was between 1565-92 due to missionaries in the South Germany and Austria areas.  Lack of personal possessions and communal living was based on Scripture.  Hutterites recognized 5 offices: apostles (or “missioners”), pastors (preachers/shepherds), helpers (who help shepherds), stewards (attending to temporal needs), and elders (like trustees); however, the church (Gemein) of the Bruderhof (community) was the “ruling body.”   Hutterites have a long history of working as a functional unit in trades and agriculture, with “hard work, frugality, little waste, and no motive for private gain.” p. 35.  When living in Moravia, they were known for being skilled craftsmen, making fine ceramics, schooling being divided into the “little school” (taught by women) and children ages 6-12 went to the “big school” (taught by men), and their medical personnel was highly sought by non-Hutterites because of their success due to strict standards of cleanliness.

CH. 3: Due to Counter-Reformation and war, the Hutterites did not fight (being pacifists) so they hid in hand-excavated underground tunnels and rooms until they were expelled from Moravia in the late 1500’s/early 1600’s.  Driven to Hungary (today’s Slovakia) life for the Hutterites continued to decline, although by the 1800’s a revitalization movement in Carinthia (in today’s Austria) caused them to be called “heretics” by the Catholic church.  The ways in which the Hutterites adapted during the 242 years as they assimilated into central Europe include: Martyrdom, Migration, Recantation, Assimilation, and The Habaner (Hutterite descendants in Czech).

CH. 4: Some Hutterite refugees wound up in the Ukraine, where although living a happy life, they worried about their brethren in Transylvania and Hungary (as apostates and prisoners).  In the late 1700’s there were internal problems – a couple of troublemakers who attempted to change the Hutterite rules, but ultimately did not succeed.  Some of the Hutterites and Mennonites (called “Cornies” after the influence of Johann Cornies) integrated and societal rules changed, innovations in agriculture grew, horticulture and pastoral methods were shared, and an understanding of branching out, as a beneficial factor, affected the Hutterites.  Some friction and differences remained between the Mennonites and the Hutterites however, but Michael Waldner promoted communal living via “psychic experiences, trances, and visions.” p. 109.  By the late 1800’s the Hutterites began leaving Russia to move to America to colonize on new ground.

CH. 5: America (specifically in the Dakotas – Sioux Indian country) brought the Hutterites into new growth, exceeding that of the “golden” period.   Often classed as Mennonites, the Hutterites were unable to take advantage of the Homestead Act since they refused individual or family land ownership, keeping the communal rules.  Many worked their way to Manitoba, Canada, where they purchased large tracts of land and intermarried with colony and noncolony peoples.  Because of the Selective Service Act of 1917 many young Hutterite men were forced to join the military, where they were often teased, beaten, and tortured to death for their pacifist stance, so they took to Canada.  Alberta land restrictions were finally amended, but colonies and farms that extended into Saskatchewan and Manitoba were still fairly restricted.


CH. 6: The Hutterite worldview stems “from the Hebrew-Christian Bible and from the Apocrypha.” P. 139.  It is a dualistic view of spiritual (eternal/unchanging) and material (temporary/changing), with a hierarchy of God over man, man over woman, parents over children and animals, etc., and mankind is born in sin and must resist their carnal nature by being “born of Christ” and abide by a higher spiritual and eternal nature.  The order of God cannot be altered, so murder, submissiveness of women to men, and interfering with conception is prohibited; additionally, suffering, self-denial, humility, unconditional obedience, and adult baptism are part of the righteous life dedicated to God.  The “Huttrish” German dialect today sounds like the language spoken in Carinthia, Austria; however, the Hutterites are also taught to read and write in German/high German and English, making them trilingual.  Ritualized prayers and songs at specific times and days cements shared practices and social bonds within the community.

CH. 7: Hutterite colonies are symbolic of the Biblical Noah’s ark, and are saved from God’s judgment by the black-and-white view of either being in the ark, or out of the ark.  Spatial adherence to compass directions (i.e. communal longhouses running due north and south so they are squared and not askew), and buildings running at right angles at each colony site, are symbolic of Hutterite orderliness, uniformity, and God’s order.   Time is both sacred and secular – with the former being eternal and ritual church/worship time, and the latter including history, work time, and meal time – and schedules are full and fairly rigid, with daily work patterns separated by age and sex, plus personal ownership of material items, and private time, are shunned.  Women, seen as being inferior to men (physically/intellectually) have no “voice” in church matters, colony policy, nor can they hold leadership positions in the church, but baptized men hold positions and offices, and the colony itself is divided up by these categories: the church (Gemein), the council, informal subcouncil, the head preacher, and the colony steward.  Women can make pleas for the group (usually the female support group) as a whole, or when colony policy affects them negatively, and they often make complaints against the men and are often annoyed by them in general.

CH. 8: In Moravia subsistence patterns were diversified, however the North American Hutterites subsistence is solely via agriculture.  Farms include crops of wheat, barley, oats, and hay (to feed livestock), as well as sheep, hogs, dairy cattle, chickens, ducks, horses, lambs, turkeys, geese, honey, etc. which are all either used on the farm for labor, or fattened up during summer for meals, or are sold to pay off major debts (land, legal settlements, etc.).  Colony work is gender and age-based, and varies according to season, with men performing income-producing labor, and women assigned to domestic work, cooking, and family and children related responsibilities.  Colony expansion is called “branching” or “cell division” so that larger colonies can bud off into smaller, more manageable daughter colonies, with the stages being threefold: 50% of new colony’s debt must be paid off (the parent colony pays the other 50%), the small daughter colony of about 60 people expands in land and buildings to accommodate its increasing population, and lastly, money is accumulated for future expansion, or to help other colonies, or obtain/make “labor-saving devices.”  Distribution of goods is divided equally and in very specific amounts and types; for instance, newly married grooms get “one bed with mattress and pillow, a table and two chairs, a closet, cupboard, stove, wall clock, and sewing machine, and a set of Hutterite books; a bride receives from her colony 7 yards and 8 inches of bedspread material, 10 yards of comforter cover, material for a mattress pad 60 inches wide, six pillow cases, 12 yards of material for a feather comforter, an enamel dish, one cup and saucer, a kettle, spoon, knife, fork, soup pail, scissors, and a large chest.  Clothing and bedding are homemade.” p. 191.

CH. 9: To Hutterites the concept of the “self” is included in the society, and not separated from it.  Couples get an apartment room of their own (in one of the longhouses) but privacy is scant, for anyone may walk in at any time, anywhere, and children run in and out of colony members’ apartments continually.  Pregnancy is commonly ignored and the baby is typically born in the apartment of its parents (or at hospitals in Canada), but the mother is cared for by a woman (usually her mother) throughout the pregnancy and not expected to work until about 6 wks after the baby is born.   Babies are always held a lot and tickled and played with, plus considered innocent until they learn to hit back; 3-5 yr old kindergarteners go from being the center of attention to the lowest of all statuses, are not fed as well, are left out of social functions, and considered willful and useless; school children (ages 6-15) are required to learn “unquestioned obedience to Hutterite authority” (p. 215) and attend German school, English school, and Sunday school; 15 yr olds attain an informal rite of passage into adulthood, with adult dining hall privileges, a two-year apprenticeship (gender-based difference), and a certain amount of deviance allowed.  Teenage boys call girls for dates, but it is her choice whether or not she wants to accept, and on leap year the girls are allowed to call the boys out, although official “courtship” is not permitted.  Patterns of childhood personality traits that have been documented in Hutterite society and include: themes on best dreams/hopes/wishes center around material possessions and travel/adventure, patriarchal father figures are seen as the primary punishers and protectors, the greatest phobias are of animals (e.g. snakes, bulls, or bears – due to threats used by adults as coercive tactics).

CH. 10: Adulthood is official when baptism occurs and is a symbol of devotion of his entire life to the colony – baptism (life to the colony) and death (eternal life) are both the two most significant rites of passage to Hutterites.  Marriages are typically monastic, matched by colony leaders, and sexual division of labor is quite drastic (and couples do not sit together during church, at tables, etc., as well), with procreation as the main reason for marrying; divorce is not optional and reconciliation is supported.  Three main kinship units are recognized: nuclear family, patrimonial family, and clans; and Hutterites practice bilateral descent, patrilocal residence, and patrilineal loyalty.  Adulthood revolves around social groups (determined by sex and age), and identity with the colony is so strong that fear of rejection or banishment is strong, which serves as a tight form of social control – one who sins excessively, or is repeatedly drunk, persistent in misconduct, or murders someone (there has never been a homicide within the Hutterites), is “cast out”, and “there is no hope of heaven for anyone who dies outside the church.” p. 245.


CH. 11: Hutterite leaders only focus on internal hostility when outside groups are not threatening or harming them in some way, taxes are paid to the governmental institutions (with the exception of taxes specifically for war, which goes against their faith), and some colonies fare well as neighbors, while other more “self-sufficient colonies tend to display the most conspicuous ethnocentric patterns and therefore have the poorest public relations.” p. 258.  State/public schooling is frowned upon by most Hutterites, but tolerated in other colonies; however, most young people after the age of 15 find it humiliating to attend school once they reach the Hutterite age of adulthood.  Medical care is occasionally sought outside of the colony (if needed), and surgery is performed if a doctor requires or suggests it; however, although accounts of mental illness is lower (about 2%) from mainstream society (10%) the reverse was true in the distribution of mental illness types – studies showed that “of the 53 persons diagnosed as psychotic, 39 were suffering from manic-depressive reaction; of these, 25 were women and 14 were men.  They suffered such afflictions as depression, irrational guilty feelings, and withdrawal from normal social relations…… manic-depression is most common in societies with a high degree of social cohesion or group-centeredness… by restricting the roles of individuals, especially women… suggests that cultural factors have some influence on the manifestation of psychoses… All but a few of 39 cases… had the symptoms of Anfechtung (considered a form of deviance).  The symptoms of this illness center of the feeling of having sinned… ‘when a person feels that he is guilty, that he has committed some crime or sin and can’t get rid of it.’” p. 262-263.  Occasionally mismanagement of colonies, or defectors (106 men and 7 women left permanently between 1918-1950 – less than 2% of the population) are reasons attributed to declining colonies.

CH. 12: In 1874 a total of 8 Hutterite societies in the U.S. existed in 72 different colonies: “Harmony Society, Oneida, Shakers, Amana, Bethel, Zoar, Saint Nazianz, and Ephrata,” all whom have since vanished. p. 285.  However, Hutterite societies today have survived due to 5 main reasons: uncompromising beliefs (as an unchallenged and therefore unchanged foundation), comprehensive socialization (a comprehensive functional integration that focuses on love and mutual support, with focus on the will of the group rather than the individual), reconciliation of delinquents (juvenile deviance and runaways usually return to their colonies’ support of rehabilitation, with little condemnation), biological vitality (celibacy is not promoted, nor is divorce allowed; sex is not condemned, large families are supported, as is medical care (with low infant mortality rates, although men outlive the women), use of modern technological equipment, acceptance of occasional converts (adding to the gene pool)), and the management of innovation (adaptability to new environments, use of heavy agricultural equipment and work trucks (unlike their Amish “cousins”), progressive attitudes toward technology – for the colony, not the individual – show Hutterites “act as if changes were not taking place” promoting continuity through time and continuance of social cohesion. p. 297).


IV.             Narrative Essay:

The author of this book, Hutterite Society, is John A. Hostetler (1918-2001).   His background began with an upbringing within an Old Order Amish society in the Iowa and Pennsylvania areas.  Since he was not baptized within the Amish community he was not shunned when he left to become member of a Mennonite congregation.  He went into academia to study sociology, with Harold S. Bender as his mentor at Goshen College, Indiana.  He married Beulah Stauffer Hostetler and had a long term working partnership with her.  Cultural anthropology and ethnographic work became Hostetler’s primary focus, and the concept of opposites in social theory (i.e. Gemeinshaft-Gesellshaft) were integrated into his own views of the smaller society benefits as contrasted to American bureaucracy and hierarchy.  Hostetler’s advocacy of the Amish through his numerous writings (which bridged the gap between popular culture and Amish society) and First Amendment campaigns (for schooling preferences for the Amish) was a hallmark of his life’s work.

            Hostetler spent 15 years in personal contact with the Hutterite society, and the outcome was this book: Hutterite Society.  Initial contact was in 1959, in Edmonton, Canada while he was teaching at the University of Alberta.  Five elders from the Hutterites visited him to discuss a land-purchase issue due to a restrictive law that prohibited their access.  Over time, and with successive visits to their colonies, he became accepted as a person from their own type of culture.  Hostetler received a U.S. Office of Education grant for a socialization study in Hutterite culture, with three colonies (280 people total) being the main focus – although other colonies were also visited.  Ethnographic research was the main method for study, although secondary information was also obtained.   The study lasted over three years and a co-authored book, The Hutterites in North America, was the result.  Later, a year-long study in Vienna (via a grant from Temple University, and supported by other grants) allowed him access to “archives, museums, libraries, villages, and archaeological sites essential to the study.” p. xvii.    Information from consultants, fieldwork, and observations from the socialization study were incorporated into this book.   Hostetler’s contact with the Hutterites continued, as did visits from the Hutterites to his own family’s location in Philadelphia and to the Pennsylvania Amish.

Hostetler’s long-term studies were in the “dwelling place of the brothers,” called a Bruderhof, a term used collectively for Hutterite agricultural colonies, most of which are located in Canada, although some exist within the northern-central United States.  Communal culture is not usually successful, but the Hutterites, have been the sole group to succeed, and even thrive.  No one in Hutterite society is poor, or wealthy, and all receive their equal share in food, clothing, housing, and being taken care of in old age.  Identity is structured so that all know their “place” within the colony, and alienation is practically nonexistent.  Never has there been a homicide in four hundred years, divorce is almost nil, reconciliation promoted, and communal sharing of property and goods reduces competition between members.  Modern society is viewed as individualistic, where greed and personal gain is considered the epitome of carnality.

In 1871 there were 400 emigrants that moved into South Dakota, and by 1997 the Hutterites numbered more than 22,000, located in prairie lands between the northwestern U.S. and Canada.  To see them in the cities and streets is commonplace, and their plain clothes give their identities away.  However, since Hutterites prefer to be around natural resources, especially water (rivers, streams, etc., such as the James River, in South Dakota, or the Saskatchewan in Canada), they choose to live on huge tracts of land that are geographically isolated so they can sustain their lifestyle via agriculture. 

Moving from the outside view, into the space of the colony, you are confronted with the people themselves, in what Hostetler calls “a strong presence.” p. 2.   Children outnumber the adults, and especially the elderly, since each successive generation increases in size.  They will gather around you, along with a number of men, each wearing suspenders and dark pants, a black hat, and a shirt of one color or another.   Agricultural equipment, barns, and other buildings are visible on the colony grounds, and once you are surrounded by the children and men, the women appear on the scene wearing long skirts, polka-dotted head coverings (bandanas), and solid, comfortable shoes.  Stern looks are given to you, and a serious demeanor mixed with curiosity among faces full of beards, and folks in practical clothes, are humbly surrounding you, giving you a sense of awe and a feeling of stepping back into the past.  You then realize you are not one of these hard-working, strong people, and you suddenly feel as if your own culture is both undisciplined and lacks rules and order, in comparison.  They evaluate you, and if you are a tourist you will not be welcome, but if you are “salesman, a government official, a real estate broker, or an innocent visitor” you will “likely be given a nod of hospitality.” p. 2. 

Hostetler’s work with the Hutterites was both long term and qualitative in nature.  His findings and writings on the Hutterites (as well as the Mennonites and Amish) paved the way for a deeper understanding of communal living within two industrialized nations.  Unlike urban centers, where population growth, space expansion, and other factors define a city, the Hutterite colonies branch off to form new self-sustaining colonies when they approach a size too large for keeping adequate control.  Hostetler covered many aspects of social scientific research in his study that are compared, contrasted, and evaluated in this book.  Some of these include medical and health issues, gender and age distribution (especially as it pertains to division of labor), technological acceptance and their criteria, religious/spiritual beliefs and subsequent colony rules, distribution practices of food and goods (wealth, or the lack of it, being nonexistent), ethics and how deviancy is dealt with, family and households (apartments/ longhouses), sex and children, cultural practices, language and education, and other factors were covered in-depth.  Although there are urban centers where many Hutterites are visible, it is the colony that gives them their strength of unity; their social identity.  Social networks are found between different colonies, as well as businesses and persons outside of their communities, but the ties within each colony stand out as the most prominent factor that guides Hutterite life.  

I chose this book because I had not heard of the Hutterites for many years, and only vaguely knew they were somehow related to the Amish and Mennonites, the latter of which my family (my grandfather and his ancestors in particular) practiced as a life-way.  Where the Amish and Mennonites deny, or use sparingly, the products of technological advances commonly found in industrialized nations, states, and urban centers, the Hutterites have adapted to accept such advances for their farming methods, communal kitchens, and other life-enhancing areas of life.  The exception is that the general rule is that the technology (such as phones, electricity, agricultural equipment, floor polishers, etc.) must enhance the lifestyle of the colony as a whole, and not particular individuals, which would cause a breakdown of the societal unity that the Hutterites very conservatively protect.  It is the unique combination of factors that has made Hutterite society so successful among a modernized and bureaucratic world. 

The areas I find most interesting, and would probably serve best in an ethnological study, are that of the mortality rates of men to women (women living shorter lives than men, which is the opposite of most cultures), the factors of mental illness in women compared to other cultures, the treatment of women as being “inferior” vs. more democratic societies that give women equal status among men, how communal life vs. urbanized life affect health (mental and physical, including genetic factors considered) and attitudes, and how all of these factors interrelate within the framework of a comparative study.  The biggest question of “Why do Hutterite women die sooner than Hutterite men?” would be the question I would ask in regards to such a study, with a noted focus on the womens’ POV.   This question was never proposed, nor investigated by Hostetler, and it could be, perhaps, because he took a male and emic view, having been raised within an Old Order Amish society to begin with.  It is possible he took his own enculturation, regarding gendered biases, for granted.  His wife was Mennonite, and he also remained Mennonite throughout his life, and this stance typically accepts the “man as the head of the household” view.  However, it is highly agreed upon in both academia, and these societies, that Hostetler has done the Amish, Mennonites, and the Hutterites a service by helping those with the etic view to see these societies through a different cultural lens, thereby gaining insight into the lives of a plain and humble people.

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1. Hostetler, John A. 1997. Hutterite Society. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

2. Reschly, Steven D. 2001. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography: Book Reviews, Writing the Amish: The Worlds of John A. Hostetler. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 130, No. 4. (accessed April 4, 2007)